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This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of our print edition.
Imagine climbing a hard, dead-vertical 120-foot pitch without feeling the slightest bit pumped. No, you’re not suddenly Peter Croft or Steph Davis—you’ve simply become adept at the elusive hand jam, a crack climbing technique that, once mastered, feels bomber while requiring minimal effort. The concept is simple, but opposite to what you might be accustomed to with face climbing: Fill the gaps left by the rock instead of pulling on the rock itself. Practice hand and foot jamming enough and every hand crack you approach will bring you pure giddiness.
The first thing to remember with any type of climbing is that your feet come first. Your lower body is the dominant pushing force behind any upward movement, and your arms should only serve to hold you into the rock and keep you balanced. Luckily, foot jamming is much easier to learn than hand jamming, so even beginners with no real technique can still make their way up a hand crack. First and foremost: Wear comfortable shoes that won’t cause too much pressure or pain when you wrench your foot into the crack over and over. To foot jam, lift your foot to knee-height and turn your knee out so the bent leg sticks out to the side of your body at nearly a 90° angle. Next, slide your foot in the crack a few inches (pinky toe down), and then twist your knee so it’s vertical and back in line with your body. Now step up and reach with your hand. Staying balanced can be the hard part, so pay attention to which move—left or right, hand or foot—feels most natural to come next. Always be looking for features on the face to utilize for balance or a good rest with hands or feet.
Whenever you’re faced with a hand crack, look for constrictions just like you would when placing gear, don’t be afraid to reach past flaring sections, and keep an eye out for face holds. With your thumb pointing straight up, slot your hand in the crack and slide it in just a few inches shy of your wrist. Slot it down and fill the empty crack with the meaty part of your palm. If the heel of your palm isn’t quite large enough, put your thumb under your palm and flex; this will make that large muscle slightly bigger to fit the crack. This is a thumbs-up jam, ideal for endurance and greater reach. The thumbs-down jam gives more power and is often an easier technique to learn (beginners will probably nail this before the thumbs-up move). Reach up so your elbow is slightly bent and your thumb is pointing straight down. Slide your hand in the crack, slot it down, and then engage your shoulder and lats to pull your elbow back down and in line with your body. This twist creates torque to keep you in the crack and pull you up. The biggest drawback is that you can’t reach as high in this orientation.
Each person has his or her unique hand size, and thus every person has his or her ideal hand crack size. “Perfect hands” is exactly what it sounds like: a crack that was made for you, a crack so perfectly sized, you can just slot your hand in and know it’s going to stick. It’s helpful to talk to someone about a route who has a similar hand size to you. Keep in mind grades can be totally based on the first ascensionist’s hand size, so take the number—like any grade—with a grain of salt. This is especially true in places like Indian Creek, where small-pawed climbers might be able to cruise 5.11s but have to thrutch their way up 5.10s. “Thin” or “tight hands” refer to a crack that is slightly too small for an effortless hand jam, but it is too big for a finger jam. “Loose” or “rattly hands” mean that the crack is slightly too large. Remember: What is one person’s “tight hands” might be your “perfect hands.” Learn what size cam corresponds to your perfect hand size, so whether it’s a No. 2 or a .75, you’ll be able to read route beta and know beforehand if you’re going to crush or thrutch.
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A Note about Taping
Despite the mummified hands you see on climbers preparing for a three-pitch route in Yosemite Valley, taping is not always necessary. Take into account the rock type and crack size. In places like Vedauwoo, the rock is coarse and rough, so taping is a good idea to protect your skin. In Yosemite the rock is smoother so it won’t tear your hands up as much. A nice tape glove can also make slightly loose hand cracks feel more secure, and it can offer a bit more friction. If the hand crack is only one or two pitches on a longer route, skip the full tape glove and just wrap a few loops of tape around the back of your hand and your palm. Check out one of our expert’s perfect tape glove technique.
Jam Session With Anne-Gilbert Chase
Your First Time
In the beginning, a hand jam will feel bizarre and a little painful, but with practice it will feel secure and normal. There is almost no effort involved in the perfect hand jam. Think about body positioning and movement as much as your individual hand and foot jams. It’s like climbing a ladder: Trust your feet to push you up and let your hands guide you. The rhythm of movement is similar to the ladder-climbing motion too.
Thumbs: Up or Down?
If the crack is slanting in one direction, it can be more efficient to have the top hand thumb-down and bottom hand thumb-up so you can shuffle your hands in the crack. Thumbs-down is great for placing gear or trying to shake out and rest. For the most efficient upward progress, thumbs-up is the way to go.
Practice, Practice, Practice
The more you hand jam, the easier and more secure it will feel. Look for features in the rock, such as constrictions, that can help to secure a hand jam or provide a rest. When your hand is placed in a constriction, it acts like a nut, and you can use less muscle power and rely on your skeleton more. Again, focus on your feet. Your legs are stronger, can handle more weight, and will take the force off your arms.
Since I have had many years of experience with these fissures, hand cracks feel easy and comfortable for me. For someone who is new to hand cracks, the best approach is to break the crack down into sections and focus on one at a time. Look for places to rest or step a foot onto a face hold to rest your ankle. Focus on the movement and finding a rhythm with your hands and feet for efficiency. This will save tons of energy.
In the last few years I have been wearing sticky rubber–covered crack gloves, which can be really nice in the alpine when you might want tape gloves for one or two pitches but not for the entire climb. They’re also great when it’s cold and you want to put on a pair of warm gloves at the belay.
Anne-Gilbert Chase spent the last three winters in Patagonia and just completed her biggest objective yet: nursing school.